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Taube: The sweet melodies of ‘Jewgrass’

Andy Statman (S L O W K I N G/GFDL 1.2)

When it comes to my musical tastes, I’ve jokingly said it can either be described as “eclectic,” or “slightly schizophrenic.”

I primarily listen to jazz, blues and classical music. I also listen to a lot of louder music, including heavy metal, hard rock and alternative.

About 20 years ago, I added a musical style that didn’t fit into any of the checked boxes – bluegrass. It’s a sub-genre of country music established in America’s Appalachian region in the 1940s, with elements of roots music (gospel, old-time), Scottish and Irish sounds, and small touches of jazz and blues.

Bluegrass performers use acoustic string instruments like the banjo, fiddle, mandolin and resonator guitar to create robust, boisterous sounds. There’s a beautiful simplicity and charm to the fast-paced, melodic and uplifting songs. The poignant lyrics often have a direct association with faith, family and good, wholesome fun.

David Grisman (Rich Anderson/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The brilliant repertoire of bluegrass legends like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers, Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys soon won me over. As I wrote in the now-defunct Weekly Standard in 2010, I became a faithful follower of the bluegrass sound – and probably the only Jewish-born, non-religious, politically and socially conservative, urbanite Canadian bluegrass fan the world has ever seen!

That isn’t to say there aren’t any Jews associated with bluegrass. In fact, I was reminded of one just recently.

A few weeks ago, I purchased Grand Ole Opry at Carnegie Hall on DVD. It’s a 2005 concert that marked the 80th anniversary of the legendary home of country music. There were performances by Little Jimmy Dickens, Charley Pride, Vince Gill, Trace Adkins, Alan Jackson and two musicians who are also associated with bluegrass – Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs.

During Skaggs’s set, he brought on his old friend, Andy Statman. While his name may not be readily familiar, this Orthodox Jew from New York is well-known for two musical styles: klezmer and bluegrass. With respect to the latter, he’s recorded with artists like Skaggs, Byron Berline, Michael Cleveland and Jon Sholle. He was even nominated for a Grammy Award in 2007 for his version of Monroe’s “Rawhide!”

It’s also worth mentioning that Statman has performed with Jewish bluegrass and old-time musicians. This includes Grammy Award-winner Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (Statman appeared on the band’s 2011 Christmas album, Jingle All the Way) and Bruce Molsky (who primarily plays old-time music on the fiddle, banjo and guitar).

Several other Jewish bluegrass artists have made their mark, too.

David Grisman is a talented mandolinist who played with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia in the latter’s bluegrass band, Old & In the Way. Eric Weissberg plays several instruments, including the banjo – which can be heard in the 1972 movie Deliverance in the “Dueling Banjos” scene. Barry Mitterhoff plays the mandolin and worked on the soundtrack of the 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou (although it wasn’t included). Banjoist Bob Yellin was a member of northern bluegrass group The Greenbriar Boys.

There’s also a strange phenomenon called “Jewgrass,” which is a fusion of klezmer, bluegrass and newgrass. As Jen Miller wrote for Smithsonian.com in 2009, “These lovers of the banjo, the fiddle and the mandolin have found a uniquely American way to express their Jewish cultural identity and religious faith.” Some of the associated acts include Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys, Adam Stotland and Nefesh Mountain.

“Jews and southern Appalachian people have a lot in common,” Leverett told Miller. “They’ve been driven out of their homes, have lived hard lives and have used music for strength.” That’s an interesting way of looking at it, and may help explain part of the appeal to its observant Jewish participants.

If you haven’t listened to bluegrass music before, give it a try. You may even be pickin’ a banjo or mandolin before you know it!

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Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist, Washington Times contributor and TV/radio pundit, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.